Elbows are under attack. That’s why more than 1,800 semi-professional and professional athletes have had at least one Tommy John surgery. Thousands of other Americans have had the surgery after months of intense elbow pain.
You should consider the procedure if you’re dealing with pain and discomfort in your arm. But you shouldn’t rush into having it. You need to study it and understand how recovery works.
What exactly is a Tommy John surgery, and what do you need to do to prepare for one? How should you spend your time after you have surgery? What kinds of pain can you expect?
Answer these questions and you can take the first steps toward surgery rehab. Here are 11 tips you should follow.
1. Understand What a Tommy John Surgery Is
The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is a ligament on the inner side of your elbow. It connects your upper arm bone to the bone in your forearm, allowing you to throw balls and move your elbow back and forth.
If you overuse your UCL, you can tear or wear the ligament down. You can also damage the UCL if you fall on your arm and break a bone, though this is rare.
Tearing a UCL can cause extreme pain, even for basic movements of your arm. If you suffer from significant elbow pain, you should go to your doctor for help. They can take X-rays of your arm and examine how your UCL is doing.
A Tommy John surgery will replace your worn-down UCL. A surgeon will take a tendon from another place in your body or from a donor and insert it where your UCL is. Techniques vary, so you should talk to your surgeon to understand what they will do.
The surgery is not for a hand injury or another condition like carpal tunnel syndrome. Some people may experience side effects like excessive bleeding or pain, especially if they have pre-existing conditions like diabetes. But most surgeries do not result in significant complications.
2. Expect to Go Through Months of Surgery Recovery
Most people make a full recovery from a Tommy John surgery. But it can take up to a year to complete the recovery and return to sports. Along the way, you may go through moments of intense pain and limited mobility.
Keep your expectations for your recovery as low as possible. You should remain optimistic, yet you should keep in mind that it may take a few months just to move your arm back and forth without pain.
Try to give some of your responsibilities to other people so you can focus on your recovery. You should also give your loved ones a rough timeline of the recovery process so they can prepare themselves for what will happen.
3. Prepare for Your Surgery in Advance
Once you decide that surgery would be a good idea, you can schedule the operation for a convenient time. You should then talk to your boss and ask for time off so you can recover in the days after the surgery.
In the days leading up to the operation, you should try to rest your elbow as much as possible. Do not strain the muscles or extend your arm and elbow too far out.
Do not take any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the days before your surgery. You should avoid smoking or consuming alcohol for at least a week.
Do not eat food after midnight on the evening before your surgery. Your doctor may allow you to drink clear liquids, namely water, for up to two hours before you arrive at the hospital. You should wear loose-fitting clothes, particularly a shirt you can take off easily.
4. Spend a Few Weeks Resting
Most Tommy John surgeries take place in the outpatient centers of hospitals. You will be given anesthesia that puts you to sleep, but you will be discharged once your vital signs are good.
Being discharged does not mean that you are free to go to work. You should spend a couple of days resting at home and monitoring yourself for signs of infection.
Doctors will give you an elbow brace that keeps your arm rigid. Do not take the brace off unless it gets dirty or broken. Do not move your arm a significant amount, and try sleeping on your back to keep the pressure off your arm.
If you are doing well after a few days, you can leave the house and go to work. But you should avoid stressing your arm out too much. Carry items in your other hand and ask people to help you move bulky or heavy items.
Do not perform intense exercise, including running or jogging. You can go for a light walk or ride on an exercise bike. You should also stretch your legs to avoid developing blood clots in them.
You can take pain medications, but you should follow your doctor’s instructions closely. Keep in mind that they can cause side effects like drowsiness, so you shouldn’t take them before doing intense work.
5. Get Help From Surgery Rehab Professionals
After a few weeks, your doctor may switch your rigid brace and replace it with a hinged one. The brace will give you a little more freedom of movement, but you cannot move your arm a significant amount.
However, you can get help for surgery recuperation. A physical therapist can teach you how to make gentle motions back and forth with your arm. You can also learn how to flex your wrist without damaging your elbow.
Be slow and steady with your physical therapy. Do not make dramatic motions with your arm like you are swinging a baseball bat. If you experience pain, tell your therapist what you are feeling and put your arm down.
6. Ease Your Way Into a Muscle-Building Routine
After the initial stage of recovery, you can start to build muscles in the areas around your UCL. Your physical therapist can help you perform exercises to do this, including resistance band exercises.
To perform a basic exercise, tie one end of a resistance band around a sturdy object like a table leg. Place a towel under your upper arm and tie the other end of the resistance band to your wrist.
Relax your arm until it extends as far as you can make it and hold your position for 15 minutes. You can take a break and then try again, with the objective of stretching your elbow out four times a day.
You will probably experience pain at some point during your exercise. However, it is important that you try to work through the discomfort and keep building your muscles. Declining to exercise can cause your muscles to atrophy or become stiff.
Exercises can cause swelling, especially a few weeks after your surgery. You can put ice packs over your elbow to bring your tissues down. Never put ice directly on your skin, as you can damage skin cells and nerves.
7. Stay Healthy
You should drink plenty of water during all stages of your recovery process. Water helps your tissues repair themselves, and it decreases the inflammation in your body. You should drink a glass of water with each meal and whenever you feel thirsty during physical therapy.
Healthy foods will also give your body the nutrients it needs to recover. Try to eat foods with a lot of fiber, especially vegetables and fruits. Many people experience constipation after surgery, and fiber foods will help your digestive system work.
To build your muscles, you should eat plenty of protein. But don’t eat only meat and seafood. Find healthy sources of protein like leafy greens, nuts, and beans.
8. Cope With Your Pain
You may experience a few different kinds of pain as time goes on. You may feel a sharp and stabbing pain in your elbow, which can radiate up and down your arm. This may be a sign that you are overexerting your UCL, so you should rest.
But you may also experience arm numbness, soreness, or tightness. This may come from your UCL, but this may originate from muscle stiffness or strains. If you are resting your arm too much, you have a lack of circulation in your arm.
Try moving your arm and hand and see what happens. If the pain seems to come from another part of your arm, you may have a strain instead of a UCL problem. You may want to go to your doctor to get help.
You can try to move your arm to see if you have good mobility. If you can’t move it around, you may have hurt something in your shoulder as well as your elbow. Go and talk to your doctor about what your next steps are.
Pain can occur at any moment, not just during physical exertion. You may wake up in the middle of the night with pain, or your arm may freeze up while you are cooking or reading.
Don’t panic. Assume a position that takes the pressure off your arm and ask for help from others. You can try to do some deep breathing to relax your muscles and calm yourself down.
9. Deal With the Mental Toll
The recovery process can be frustrating and exhausting, especially if you have sudden flare-ups of pain. Understanding what to expect from Tommy John surgery can help reduce your stress. But you should expect to feel overwhelmed or stressed while you recover.
Talk to a psychiatrist if you’re finding it hard to deal with difficult emotions. You can try talk therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help you replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Some people do develop depression after Tommy John surgery. Monitor yourself for the signs of depression and seek help if you have them.
10. Be Ready for Discomfort Toward the End of the Recovery
Many people think they are all set to return to the playing field after eight or so months of recovery. They can move their arm back and forth and even throw balls at similar speeds that they used to throw. They then blow out their UCR and experience extreme pain.
As you return to your normal exercises, you should prepare for an uptick in pain. Your body is getting used again to extreme motions, and it takes time to ease your way into things.
Continue to follow advice from your doctor and physical therapist. Do not rush anything, even if you go a few days without discomfort.
11. Avoid Future Injuries
You can injure your UCL again, even years after surgery. Take breaks after using your arm extensively, especially if you are pitching baseballs.
Try to focus on accuracy more than speed or power. Throwing accurate baseballs requires precise movements that won’t overextend or stress your elbow.
You can develop other conditions in your elbow, including ulnar neuropathy. This condition affects the ulnar nerve, which runs from your neck down into your hand. Study other elbow conditions and get help if you have any symptoms that match them.
It is possible to receive another Tommy John surgery. But that means restarting your recovery process and possibly never returning to full use of your arm. You should take whatever steps you need to take to avoid another procedure.
Get a Tommy John Surgery
A Tommy John surgery can make your elbow pain go away. But it won’t do so overnight. You need to avoid complications from your surgery by resting before and after your operation.
You can build muscle strength with arm exercises. Get help from a physical therapist so you don’t overexert yourself.
You should understand that the process will take time and create significant pain. Yet many people make a full recovery and avoid injuries in the future.
Don’t wait around for your UCL to wear down. The Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas serves the Houston area. Contact us today.